Singer Tina Turner was the main draw at the opening ceremony in San Francisco for the first Gay Games in 1982, but city supervisor Doris Ward may have received the biggest reaction from the crowd. “She said, ‘I’d like to invite you all to the first-ever Gay Olympics,’” remembers Jim Hahn, one of roughly 1.300 competitors in the inaugural event. “And the place just went nuts.”
But Gay Games I, which ran from August 28-September 5, 1982, faced many challenges, including the U.S. Olympic Committee's lawsuit barring the event from using the name "Gay Olympics." The legal action was a microcosm of the discrimination dealt with by the LGBT community, which still was carving out a place for openly queer people in American society.
“There were Rat Olympics, there were Xerox Olympics, there were Police Olympics. You could have an Olympics for anything,” says Shamey Cramer, a swimmer who co-led Team Los Angeles in the first Games, “but heaven forbid you should be gay or lesbian.”
The U.S.O.C. succeeded in blocking the official use of the term "Olympic," but the lawsuit galvanized support for the Games, especially among the gay community.
Participants in the inaugural event today recall Gay Games I as a watershed moment for gay athletes around the world. "When I walk into the [Gay Games] opening ceremonies," says Hahn, "I always get that sense of history coming back.”
Ex-U.S. Olympian Helps Organize Gay Games
Dr. Tom Waddell, a former U.S. Olympian, was one of the lead organizers of the first Gay Games. A two-sport athlete in college, Waddell—who died from AIDS in 1987—was still closeted in 1968, when he placed sixth in the decathlon at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Waddell advised American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith there on their public statements about their Black Power salute, one of the more notable protests in sports history.
Like many other LGBT athletes, Waddell wanted to make a similar, powerful statement with an event for gay athletes.
READ MORE: 8 Memorable Protests by American Athletes
“You were either a drag queen or in the leather community—those were the stereotypes that were presented to the public at that time,” says Rick Thoman, a track and field athlete who competed in the first Gay Games. “They never thought that we were able to be athletic and be gay at the same time.”
A number of gay and lesbian sports leagues emerged in the 1970s, as the LGBT community gradually announced itself to mainstream society. Still, many outlets for gay athletes, namely bowling and billiards leagues, were still tied to the bars that had served as safe harbors for decades.
“The Games offer another place to ‘come out’ besides a dark bar,” Jill Ramsay, the chair of swimming and diving at the first Games, told the Bay Area Reporter, one of the nation's first gay newspapers, in 1982.
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Like the campaigns of gay politician Harvey Milk, a well-known community organizer, the first Gay Games were a grassroots project. Ahead of the Games, a volunteer group of lesbians fixed up Kezar Stadium, one of the chief venues and former home of the San Francisco 49ers. Waddell used an ironing board as a makeshift sign-up table for the Games on a street corner in the Castro, a hub of San Francisco's gay community. Waddell said the first Gay Games were put on with a modest budget: $220,000.
How the First Games Play Out
At Gay Games I, teams were organized by city, each designing their own uniforms. Age groups were not standardized, and squads for relays and other team sports were often organized on an ad hoc basis.
Future games would be more organized, but those competitions retained several crucial elements of the first Games: Athletes of all skill levels and orientations are welcome, and winning is not considered as important as setting a personal best. Participants ranged from elite athletes to novices.
Charlie Carson, a swimmer who traveled to from New York for Gay Games I in 1982, recalls meeting a young swimmer from Australia who had never competed against others. While warming up, Carson and others gave him tips on the finer points of each stroke to ensure he would not get disqualified.
In addition to boxing, basketball, swimming and a number of other traditional Olympic sports, the Gay Games featured billiards, bowling and a physique competition held at the historic Castro Theater. For more than a week, venues around San Francisco were hubs of activity, with restaurants, stores and nightclubs in the Castro district offering special deals for athletes.
Attendance was mediocre at first, participants say, but rose as the Games went on. About 10,000 spectators attended the opening ceremony at Kezar Stadium. One participant estimates that between 6,000 and 7,000 fans attended the closing ceremony. Extensive coverage of the first Games was found only in the Bay Area Reporter.
Pioneering a New Tradition
Thanks to the efforts of Cramer, Hahn, Carson, Thoman and many others, the Gay Games have taken place every four years since 1982, with recent editions drawing comparable numbers of athletes to the Olympics and Paralympics. Carson remains proud of the impact of the Gay Games on the Olympics and broader sporting world.
“We weren't oblivious to the fact that what we were doing at the first Games was groundbreaking,” he says.
Six years after the first Gay Games, equestrian Robert Dover became the first openly gay athlete to compete in the modern Olympics. Olympic gold medalist Bruce Hayes came out publicly while competing at Gay Games III in 1990. Four years later, diver Greg Louganis came out as part of the opening ceremony of Gay Games IV. According to Outsports, there were at least 185 openly LGBT athletes at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Games also led to a boom in the formation of gay sports clubs across America. “People went back to their communities, and gay sports just came out of the woodwork,” says Thoman, who is still a member of a track club that formed in the wake of the Games.
“[The Games] gave me confidence to be who I really was,” he adds. “To be able to be an athlete and be gay, it was just a huge burst of pride.”